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De Ronde: Sagan vs. Gilbert vs. Van Avermaet

Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, and Greg Van Avermaet are clear favorites for Flanders. Expect a thrilling Ronde this year.

GENT, Belgium (VN) — There might be nearly 200 starters Sunday for Ronde van Vlaanderen, but three names stand above.

When it comes to crunch time Sunday for the 102nd Tour of Flanders, Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert, and Greg Van Avermaet are all but assured to be in the heat of the battle in the final hour. Two have won Belgium’s biggest race and the other is desperate to join their ranks. The trio dominates the classics and combined they own six monument titles.

“There is clearly a hierarchy right now,” said budding classics star Oliver Naesen of Ag2r La Mondiale. “You know Greg, Peter, or Phil will win at least one of the big races. So that doesn’t leave many left over.”

For riders like Naesen trying to muscle in, it’s crowded at the top.

Cycling’s seen historic matchups before over the cobblestones — think Merckx versus De Vlaeminck or Boonen against Cancellara — but it’s rare to see three riders capable of dominating the classics at their peak all at once.

“These guys work the whole year for these races,” said Trek-Segafredo director Dirk Demol. “This year, I don’t see one rider super-strong above all the others. You know Peter, Phil, and Greg will be good.”

That guarantee is what sets these three apart. Coming into the most important races on the classics calendar, with Ronde on Sunday and Paris-Roubaix on April 8, the leading trio seems ready to reassert their supremacy yet again.

Philippe Gilbert
Proving his earlier form in the cobbled races, Gilbert returned to the spring classics with showmanship, winning 2017 Tour of Flanders. Photo: Iri Greco / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

Of the three, Quick-Step’s Gilbert remains winless, but he’s been looking sharp in key races, with second places in E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn while working for teammates, and third at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The defending Flanders champion retreated to Monaco Sunday after pulling hard in Gent-Wevelgem in order to fully recover for the Ronde.

“Phil is ready,” said Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels. “We see he is a team player and isn’t afraid to work for others. I think Sunday [Flanders] he will be strong.”

Next in line is Sagan, who reduced Elia Viviani (Quick-Step) to tears Sunday after beating him in a bunch sprint in Wevelgem. Sagan quieted critics with his first win since January and seems bubbling to form just in time for Flanders. The Bora-Hansgrohe captain is hoping to follow the same script from 2016 when he won Gent-Wevelgem and doubled down with Flanders for his lone monument win. Sagan coolly deflects the pressure that comes at the top.

“If you are good, you are good,” Sagan said with a shrug. “If you are bad, you will always have critics. It is my life, not the journalists.’”

Greg Van Avermaet emerged at Pont-Thibaut to Ennevelin as Paris-Roubaix 2017 neared the closing and pivotal sectors of the route. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | www.brakethroughmedia.com

And then there’s BMC’s Van Avermaet, who’s won just once this season despite looking sharp across his early season targets. Last year’s near-sweep of the Belgian classics was a once-in-a-career run, but Van Avermaet is insisting he’s feeling stronger even if his results so far don’t show it. A classics-best third at Harelbeke doesn’t reflect his confidence.

“I feel as strong or maybe stronger than last year,” he said. “I hope I have some luck [Sunday] so I can show it in the race.”

Sunday’s Ronde clash sees all three arriving in peak form. None have suffered major injuries, illnesses, or setbacks. They bring unbridled ambition, well-backed teams, unparalleled bike-racing skills and huge pressure to match.

And though all three have won major titles in the sport — Van Avermaet with Olympic gold and Gilbert and Sagan own world titles — they live for the classics.

“These are the races I love most,” Gilbert said with a glint in his eye. “My dream is to win all five monuments. It’s what motivates me to keep training and racing.”

Gilbert, 35, is putting off retirement to try to become just the fourth rider in cycling history to win all five monuments. He’s won Il Lombardia twice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flanders once each. After falling short at Milano-Sanremo in March, he’ll start Roubaix in April for just the second time in his career to chase his dream.

The allure of making history is driving all three. The wins didn’t come easy for Van Avermaet, whose first monument didn’t come until last year at Paris-Roubaix. Victories fall like leaves off the trees for Sagan, including a record-tying three world titles, but he too only boasts one monument, with Flanders in 2016. That shows just how hard it is to win one of cycling’s elusive monuments.

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) joined an exclusive club, as a three-time winner of Gent-Wevelgem. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

“Peter has his place in history with three straight world titles,” said Sagan’s trainer Patxi Vila. “Now we want to win more monuments. Peter has fun, but he is also professional. He’s done his work.”

If reaching the top in today’s hyper-competitive peloton is hard enough, staying there is even harder. Gilbert enjoyed a resurgence in 2017 that he hopes to carry him into retirement on his terms. Van Avermaet has been on a tear since 2016 while Sagan’s first of three world titles in 2015 has been most consistent at the top.

There are several riders nipping at their heels, and in cycling, you’re only as good as yesterday’s results. John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Emirates) are two riders who tasted monument glory only to fall on hard times the past few seasons.

Riders like Kwiatkowski, Naesen, Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), and Arnaud Démare (FDJ) are among a generation of younger riders wanting to elbow their way to the top. And there are always surprises, like Wout Van Aert, the three-time world cyclocross world champion who is making an impressive first run across the pavé of Belgium.

Yet come Sunday, the power hierarchy will likely reassert itself. Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Gilbert will be squeezing every watt out of the pedals they can.

Enjoy the ride. It could be their last big rodeo.